Justin Timberlake, We Need to Talk

Timberlake

Dear Justin Timberlake,

You’re one of my favorites. I love The 20/20 Experience more than a lot of people. Anytime I want to listen to some great pop music, I turn to Justified and the revolutionary FutureSex/LoveSounds. I gobbled up your latest SNL hosting gig and your five-day stint on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in the spring, even though it was pretty nakedly a promotional gambit for your musical comeback. I even like your acting! Friends with Benefits isn’t a great movie, but your rapport with Mila Kunis makes it watchable, and your turn as Sean Parker in The Social Network is legitimately strong.

But I’m not sure I’m willing to fully support what’s going on with you these days.

Let me explain. I’m very excited for your follow-up to The 20/20 Experience, which will be out on September 30. I’ll probably listen to it a million times. But I have to ask: why are you releasing two albums in one year? Yes, I know your record label wants you to. But your first 2013 album has gone double platinum already. You don’t need another album this quickly. You’ve always said you’d rather take time between albums to recharge and create the best music possible rather than churn out content as soon as your fans demand it. And yet, here you are, indulging with us more music in 2013.

I understand that you recorded the entire 20/20 Experience in one sitting, and this new album is just an extension of the previous one, but right now, I don’t know why that album needs an extension. So far, you haven’t proven to me that these two albums have benefited artistically from being split in this manner. The first single from the second album, the throwback “Take Back the Night,” is a perfectly fun song (“And the horns say!”), but it’s not a game-changer like “SexyBack” or “My Love.” Like some of the songs on the first part of 20/20, it could probably stand to end a minute or two earlier than it does. (I don’t even want to compare “Take Back the Night” to Michael Jackson like everyone else has, for reasons I articulated in a USA Today College piece earlier this summer.)

I didn’t really like the teaser video you released earlier this week, in which you coyly blocked out the release date for “Take Back the Night.” Especially considering you released the song just two days later, the video seems pointless. You already played the speculation game back in January with “Suit & Tie” – ever heard of the law of diminishing returns?

I guess what I’m saying, Justin, is that I want innovation from you. You’ve made great music this year, but you haven’t changed pop music the way you did last time. You probably don’t feel like you need to do that anymore. But I wish you would.

I’m also curious about this “Tunnel Vision” situation. You released a new music video for the excellent track last week, only to endure a lot of criticism for your use of naked models a la Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” Many people think you were trying to emulate Robin Thicke for the sake of conversation and aspiration. I’m torn, because you seem smarter than that. You managed to work a veiled response to Kanye’s criticism of your song “Suit & Tie” into your SNL performance of the song just a few days later. You’re clearly paying attention to what people are saying about you. Maybe you were using the naked models as a jab at Robin Thicke for taking over your blue-eyed soul crown for the summer? I’m not sure this jab succeeded, if that’s even what you intended, but I don’t think you need to do that either way. Robin Thicke doesn’t have nearly as much performance charisma or vocal ability that you do. Sure, he’s got a bigger hit song than you right now, but people love that song for being that song and maybe for being produced by Pharrell, but they don’t love it for Robin Thicke. Your terrain is safe, Justin. Rest easy.

There are also some logistical problems with your upcoming album. First of all, the official title is The 20/20 Experience – Part 2 of 2. That is a terrible title. It’s a mouthful, and it looks ugly, and there are too many numbers. Also, you told us back in March that both halves of The 20/20 Experience would add up to 20 songs, fulfilling the promise of 20 songs, but now you’ve gone and sabotaged your own continuity by including 11 songs and a “special surprise” on the second part. I propose we rename your upcoming album The 20/21 and Some Other Stuff Experience.

And yet…I can’t quit you, Justin. Not that I have a choice. You’re going to be everywhere this fall: the new album, a thriller with Ben Affleck (Runner Runner), a major Oscar contender from the Coen Brothers (Inside Llewyn Davis), a stadium tour with Jay-Z, a solo tour, and maybe you’ll go to the moon while you’re at it, just to really show us mortals up. I’m excited to see what your new album holds. Will the promised collaborations with T.I. and Pharrell bring the same magic that they have in the past? Will the second album complement the first in some way beyond the pull of corporate greed? Will you retreat into another seven-year musical hiatus after 2013? I don’t know, but I’m eager to find out. I commend you, Justin: you’ve made your celebrity status accessible and interesting in a way that few other stars can claim. I’ll follow you to the end, JT. Don’t let me down.

Sincerely,
Mark Lieberman

**

While we’re waiting for Justin to lead a revolution, check out my favorite Timberlake song, the sublime “My Love” featuring T.I.

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